Cheaters, liars, outlaws, fallen angels
Come looking for the grace from which they fell
So they hold on to each other
In the darkness
Cause the morning light is hell
At the Camelot Motel
— Mary Gautier
There is no setting more evocative in American storytelling than the motel. It is transitory, interchangeable, rife with cultural connotations. It appears locked in an eternal time warp somewhere between 1949 and 1999. Its definitive literary archetype, the Bates Motel in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (later the iconic Hitchcock film), is shorthand for everything from shabbiness to deviance, provincialism, and murder.
The motel’s range as a narrative device is vast: it provided the small-town hot-sheet hideout in The Last Picture Show, where Jacy Farrow loses her virginity on the second try; the diversion where Thelma and Louise are robbed by a one night stand; and the trap where the sinister villain of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men exacts final revenge on imperfect hero Llewelyn Moss. The motel can be anything you want, all smoky and neon and forlorn.
I have vivid childhood memories of three motels in my New Mexico hometown, all of which have long since closed down. The first had a simple backlit 1970s marquee with sun-bleached, chipped plastic letters that fell off one by one over the years, never to be replaced. Another, a western-themed spot at the edge of town, featured a billboard-size sign painted in back-slanted knockoff Holiday Inn cursive straddled by a loopy, faceless cowboy lassoing nothing in particular. The best was the Arrow Motel, signed by a neon Indian archer in a multicolor headdress slinging animated arrows toward the registration office. Four years ago, more than a decade after the Arrow hosted its last guests, most of the original building burned to the ground. At long last, the archer had hit his target. The following year, what had remained of the structure was razed, leaving the archer to aim his burned-out neon bow onto an empty field.
On the night my mother escaped her abusive first husband, I was eight. After a public skirmish between the two of them, she sped my sister and me away in her Jeep, new boyfriend in the passenger seat. That night, we hunkered down in a fortresslike cinderblock motel under a buzzing fluorescent sign just off the interstate as the boyfriend sat sentry with a loaded gun. By dawn, in a mostly unrelated twist of fate, someone had stolen the Jeep from the parking lot. A few years later, my seventh-grade science teacher was busted while attempting to score crack at another motel just two blocks away. The site of his glorious downfall, the grimy Crossroads Motel, was later made infamous by an iconic Breaking Bad montage about workaday prostitute Wendy.
For years after the series ended, the old Crossroads—on a downtown stretch of Route 66 right off a busy freeway exit and wholly visible for blocks—was draped with a giant, menacing red banner that read, “Private Property: To take pictures, see office to pay the fee.” Apparently, the owner of the rather unpicturesque motel grew frustrated with gawking shutterbug fans whose presence drove home its budget streetwalker-drug den image instead of generating positive buzz. Still, that the owner of such a place had to practically scream “get off my lawn” via a 20-foot banner reveals a certain trendiness of motel iconography. There are dozens upon dozens of Instagram feeds dedicated to postwar neon signage and roadside architecture, while countless others are peppered with snapshots of dilapidated motels, a waxy-eyed nostalgia bordering on ruin porn.
Symbolic popularity aside, the vast majority of charming old motel signs still standing across the U.S. and Canada demarcate outdated lodgings that—considering their one-star TripAdvisor ratings, shabby bathrooms, and bad Wi-Fi—few middle-class travelers would actually be willing to spend a night in. Instead, these liminal places are collected in snapshots and posted across social media by people eager to co-opt a little analog-era authenticity. Alas, places like the Crossroads Motel have no use for Instagram fans when that notoriety does not translate to more bookings. And we all know that most people worried about looking #authentic on social media aren’t about to actually sleep somewhere with busted Wi-Fi, three fuzzy TV channels, and terrible coffee.
This recent fetishization of the motel as hip retro symbol also belies its widely misunderstood role as one powerful catalyst in the development of our disastrously car-centric urbanism, the homogenizing business of franchising, and the dominance of mass marketing. Rather than being quaint time capsules from an era of innocence, motels were always products of ruthless capitalism, replete with cutthroat land speculation, countless failed upstarts, corporate profiteering, and lowest-common-denominator marketing.
Still, the motel was a democratizing force. Innovations—such as those welcoming signs, free parking, and corporate protocols that at least in theory welcomed every paying guest regardless of class, education, or race—helped make highway travel safer, more accessible, and more inclusive than the downtown hotels, tourist camps, or family-owned guest houses that predated them. Postwar icons—like Holiday Inn, with its rigorously standardized quality and futuristic computer reservation system; Howard Johnson’s, with its friendly restaurants and keen design sensibility; as well as others like Best Western, Sheraton, and Travelodge—each in some way revolutionized highway travel. For a time, they were seen as harbingers of a brighter, shinier modernity—just imagine the difference between a Dust Bowl-era tourist camp and a 1960s Holiday Inn!—and they were the true progenitors of the hyperconnected, super safe, accessible-to-all travel of today.